As I wandered around the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery recently, I got thinking about representations of the social and how what I was seeing was a 17th century way of telling, and just as valid as our modern ways. I wouldn’t ascribe this point to his religious works, but to his portraits of everyday people and scenes. It’s from paintings such as Rembrandt’s that we are able to see how people dressed, in this case the wealthy merchant class and upper classes, during the latter half of the 17th century, their body language, how they held themselves and interacted with each other. Experts in medicine and art history are even able to determine if the sitter in a portrait had a particular ailment and if so, which disease/illness they had.
So I think we can safely say that painting is a valid way of telling.
The exhibition catalogue says this about Rembrandt:
He was captivated by life’s peculiarities – its randomness and its defects, its anomalies and its ordinariness – and considered it an artist’s responsibility to record images and events without preconceptions of beauty or ugliness. A hanged women, a scruffy landscape or an exotic beast were equally deserving of his scrutiny. This attitude was in complete opposition to the classically orientated art theory of the day, which held that only beauty and perfection were worthy of an artist’s notice. Rembrandt’s insistence on truth to nature eventually resulted in him being branded an idiosyncratic ‘art heretic by critics and theorists during his lifetime and immediately after his death.
On a personal note Rembrandt remains one of my earliest memories of appreciating art, long before I even thought of picking up a camera.
His work is visceral, earthy and moving. Nearly 350 years after his death his paintings are still able to speak to us, the people captured within his frame still crackle with energy and the paintings glow with the vibrancy of his brushstrokes.
One of the things that struck me long before I knew what perspective was or the the rule of thirds, or the golden ratio, was how he placed the figures in his paintings.
Each one perfectly balanced.